We’ve been talking about the hilarity and joy of the ABC elementary school comedy “Abbott Elementary,” for months now. And as the first season of the Quinta Brunson-created sitcom comes to a close it’s worth revisiting what made the series such a breakout hit.
The sitcom, and specifically the workplace sitcom, continues to be a popular entry for new series, and while many have tried to emulate the likes of “The Office,” few have succeeded. But while “Abbott Elementary” may be a workplace comedy it also uses its setting to make powerful comments about the state of the public education system.
“Abbott Elementary” has quickly become a fan favorite, with social media users regularly sharing screengrabs of specific episode jokes and championing the cast, which includes Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams, and Janelle James. But the most important work has come from how the show celebrates educators while condemning a government that continues to undervalue them.
As Williams himself told IndieWire back in February, “[Teachers] choose this vocation knowing what comes with it, knowing how hard it is, and choosing to help raise your kids. Your children, not theirs. This show lives in a perfect space. If I can make you laugh on Tuesday night with your family and then Wednesday morning, when you drop your kids off to school, if you’re just that much nicer or have that much more compassion [for] the people that you’re dropping your kids off to then I did my job.”
Below, five Season 1 moments that led to “Abbott Elementary” becoming a breakout hit.
1. Gregory and Barbara Buy Rugs
In the pilot, Williams’ new teacher Gregory and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s wizened educator Barbara decide to help co-worker Janine Teagues (Brunson) replace her classroom rug after a student has peed on it. According to Williams, this was when he realized the show would be a hit. “I look up at Sheryl Lee Ralph, and she looks at me and I was like, ‘Do you feel that? I know you’ve felt it before because so have I’ and she [said], ‘Yeah, I can feel it. This one’s different.’ We knew that we had something good. We knew we had something good that most people had not been used to seeing on network TV, but you still don’t know if it’s gonna resonate with people who can actually watch it.”
Williams said it wasn’t until that pilot aired that the true success of the series was confirmed. “The pilot had jumped off and people liked it, but January 4th we had seen Twitter was talking about it constantly but then it trended straight into the very next week. That was when I knew we may have something bigger than we thought when it was trending for seven days until the very next episode aired,” he said.
2. Barbara and the Wishlist
Episode 3 saw Janine and the other teachers try to fulfill their classroom wishlists (a reminder that teachers often pay for their own class materials). Janine, using Principal Ava (James) skills at social media, becomes a social media sensation and after getting all her items decides to help Barbara with a similar video.
This episode is a fantastic example of how the show uses humor not to laugh at the teachers, but at the system that requires them to exploit themselves. In this case, Ava turns Barbara into the equivalent of an old dog in an ASPCA commercial. Too often the need to promote something as trauma/inspiration porn is the only way people take notice. To see poor Barbara and her class presented as a viral example of underprivileged kids in an inner-city school, it worked as sly satire to say that media narrative isn’t always true.
3. Jacob and Barbara Start a School Garden
So much of the joy of “Abbott Elementary” comes from its characters. In the seventh episode, “Art Teacher,” Barbara and sensitive coworker Jacob (Chris Perfetti) start a class garden. While Gregory refuses to engage with them, due to his own past history working for his father’s nursery, Jacob and Barbara come to enjoy each other’s company.
The unlikely friendship sees the pair bonding over their pasts, as well as a mutual love for Sidney Poitier. To look at the show from its pilot, where these characters were disparate bits of Abbott’s makeup, to seeing them form friendships they never anticipated in a way that feels natural is amazing. Not to mention, who doesn’t love Sidney Poitier?
4. Gregory Loosens Up
Every actor on the show is the master of the reaction shot, but none more so than Tyler James Williams as Gregory, who acts as the audience surrogate to Abbott’s world as the newest teacher. He’s spent much of Season 1 figuring out if teaching is really for him, so much of his arc has been about discovering how to connect with his students. In the episode “Work Family,” Gregory is chastised by the other teachers for being too stiff and formal with his students. So, by the end of the episode, he decides to let loose and pull off one of the funniest awkward dances on television.
Williams said he, personally, worried about doing the scene. “How does he do this for these kids in a way that isn’t not only fun for them, but makes them laugh as well,” Williams said to IndieWire back in February. “Part of this is that he’s choosing to be a part of their good time. So that was a lot to find physically, on the day. I was concerned that this is one of those [moments] that either hits or doesn’t, but Quinta and Justin, I tell them all the time, ‘You guys know me better than I know myself.’ We did need this moment here when he was able to show us a piece of himself that he had been restraining. Part of that goes into his choice to stay or not to stay at Abbott.”
5. Ava Teaches Step Class
One cannot forget Janelle James as Principle Ava Coleman. The character started out as unsympathetic and oblivious to what’s going on with the teachers, but as the series has progressed Ava has become a far more complex character. In “Step Class,” Ava takes an active interest in Janine’s step class and becomes a mentor figure to the young girls. Outside of the hilarity of Ava telling her students non-educational stories, the episode took the time to humanize the character with the reveal that Ava’s grandmother has dementia. It’s not a moment of preachiness nor does it undo all of Ava’s actions, but it creates a reason for her to be distanced, to want to escape. It also allowed James to do some damn fine acting.
“Abbott Elementary” airs new episodes Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. The finale premieres April 12.